- Associated Press - Thursday, October 8, 2015

Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Oct. 1, on Montana’s cash reserves:

State lawmakers got some good news recently when they learned the state’s cash reserves - money left over after the budgeting process - were $90 million higher than anticipated at the June 30 end of the fiscal year. Fiscal analysts say the additional funds resulted from higher than anticipated income tax collections and lower than anticipated expenditures.

The fiscal analysts said they are awaiting more data and will give lawmakers a more exact explanation of where all the additional funds came from in December. But with that extra money, the state’s cash reserves top $450 million, a tidy sum for a sparsely populated state like Montana, and more cash than the state needs to keep on hand.

The surplus sets Montana apart from many other states that are struggling with large deficits and facing hard decisions on tax increases that could be a drag on their economies. The burgeoning surplus should also have state officials considering their options.

Some fiscal hawks will favor returning some of the extra cash to taxpayers. There is precedent for that, and the idea certainly demands serious consideration. Another option would be to revisit some of the business left undone at the end of the last legislative session earlier this year.



The session ended on a sour note when a handful of lawmakers blocked a badly needed $150 million infrastructure spending bill - by just one vote at one point in the process. In the spirit of compromise, the measure had already been scaled back from Gov. Steve Bullock’s request, which was to be wisely funded with bonds that would have historically low interest rates.

With an additional $90 million in the state’s pocket, that measure, or one like it, could be resurrected and passed in a special session.

Infrastructure is the backbone of any thriving economy. Without the needed roads, bridges and buildings, commerce is hampered. And on both the state and national levels we have neglected our infrastructure to the point of crumbling in some cases.

The unanticipated boost in the state’s cash reserves presents an opportunity to give some of that money back to taxpayers and to correct an error lawmakers made earlier this year. Both options would be good for the state.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1QYyUC2

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The Missoulian, Oct. 1, on legislation to help prevent child sex abuse:

Nobody wants to talk about child sexual abuse. It’s a topic that is at best uncomfortable and at worst excruciatingly painful. It’s so much easier to remain silent.

Abusers count on that.

Which is why Tara Walker Lyons’ willingness to share her story is all the more worthy of applause. In helping to personalize a vast and largely faceless issue, Lyons is not only showing tremendous courage, she is helping to shatter the silence that protects abusers - and leading the way for Montana to prevent more children from becoming victims.

Childhood sexual abuse occurs with sickening frequency, affecting at least one in 10 children. Lyons herself estimates she was abused more than 100 times over the course of several years, starting at the age of 6.

Now, at 27, Lyons regularly travels from her home in Hamilton to talk directly to offenders in the prison system as a member of the Montana Department of Corrections’ Victim Impact Panel. And this summer, she shared her story with an even wider audience by posting a video and creating a Facebook page dedicated to discussing childhood sexual abuse. It’s called “Defending Innocence.”

Lyons’ efforts to end the culture of silence that surrounds child sexual abuse were chronicled in the Missoulian and Ravalli Republic earlier this week. Her immediate plans include receiving specialized training, and then taking steps to advocate for new legislation that would require Montana’s public schools to teach sexual abuse prevention.

Specifically, Lyons would like to see Montana adopt Erin’s Law, named for a child sexual abuse survivor who became a successful author and activist. The legislation, which has been passed in 26 states, has three main components:

-Students in all grades are taught to recognize sexual abuse and report it to a trusted adult. This information is taught in an age-appropriate way.

-All school personnel are taught about child sexual abuse, including how to recognize it and how to report it to the right authorities.

-Parents are provided with information about child sexual abuse, including resources available to support children who have experienced abuse.

Unfortunately, children’s sex education is a controversial topic in Montana, and Erin’s Law is bound to meet with opposition from parents who would prefer to keep their children in the dark about such hideous crimes.

While respecting a family’s right to opt out, it’s important to point out that this information could have ended Lyons’ abuse had she had access to it when she was a child.

As she said in the Missoulian article, “No one ever said that talking about it could save you.”

That’s why Montanans should push for this legislation in our state. It would ensure that critical information - information that could save a child from years of abuse - reaches those who need it most.

And it’s why, with or without legislation, every parent should make sure to learn about child abuse, and open the door to that difficult conversation with their children. Right now.

Child abusers rely on their young victims’ innocence and ignorance to maintain the silence that allows them to remain undetected. Montana must arm its children with good information and a willingness to speak up in order to end that silence.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1LhsHRF

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The Independent Record, Oct. 4, on expanding elk hunting seasons:

This week, the Montana Fish and Game Commission will consider a proposal to give Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks the flexibility to expand elk seasons in some areas where elk numbers exceed population objectives.

This shoulder season proposal would allow FWP to expand seasons between Aug. 15 and Feb. 15. The goal of the expanded season would be to ultimately bring the elk population closer to the objectives set in the state elk plan.

The proposal has gotten some support from landowners and livestock groups and some pushback from hunting groups in the state.

We believe the commission should approve shoulder seasons and free up more tools for the agency to address problems elk are creating for landowners and to help provide more access and opportunities for hunters.

Montana is known for its long and liberal big game hunting seasons. In many places in the state an elk hunter can already shoot two elk by purchasing a general season elk tag and an elk B license, which allows for a second antlerless elk. Additionally, between archery season and general rifle season, hunters in Montana have almost three months to chase elk and deer around the state.

And while Montana has some amazing public land hunting, much of the habitat elk and deer use is on private land. These landowners often feed cows and other livestock on purpose, but part of ranching in Montana is sharing the range with elk and deer. However, when the elk eat too much alfalfa and tear down too many fences, landowners often turn to FWP for solutions.

Up until now, some of the solutions have included the block management program, which is coordinated through FWP and pays landowners a little money for allowing some public access. Another program is the game damage program, which allows hunters to sign up for rosters and then FWP and landowners to pull hunters from the roster to help disperse elk, deer and antelope that are causing damage on private land.

Both programs have had some success, but elk numbers in many areas continue to increase, Jeff Hagener, FWP director, told the IR editorial board this past week.

Of 138 elk management areas in the state, 80 are exceeding population objectives and 18 are well over objective, Hagener said. Population objectives take into account a variety of factors, including habitat and landowner tolerance.

The initial focus of the shoulder seasons would likely be in the 18 areas where elk numbers are most out of line with stated objectives.

The shoulder season option is a step in the right direction because it will give the agency flexibility in providing more hunter opportunities across a larger time period, allowing hunting pressure to be a more effective tool for population control and elk dispersal.

Some opponents of the idea say this is a step toward the “ranching for wildlife” model used in other states like Colorado. In brief, ranching for wildlife allows the state to provide tags to landowners who then can sell them to hunters for top dollar, pocketing the profit and off-setting the cost of providing wildlife habitat on their property.

This idea does not sit well with Montana sportsmen and women and isn’t one we support either. In Montana, the wildlife is public, no matter where it lives or whose grass it eats, and the idea of private individuals profiting from tags to hunt public wildlife seems counter to the spirit of this concept.

We also know there’s often tension between landowners and hunters for access to elk that spend the majority of their time, or at least the majority of hunting season, on private land. And though FWP has offered a few programs to mitigate this issue, it still becomes a point of conflict every hunting season.

For the shoulder season concept to accomplish its goals, landowners and hunters are going to have to work collaboratively.

Some landowners are already doing this and trying to provide public opportunities to hunt elk. Others don’t provide those opportunities. Likewise, many hunters are eager to take advantage of private land opportunities, seeing it as a privilege. While others see it as a right to hunt elk whether they are on private or public land and see it as a landowner’s obligation to provide public access. And within the extremes are many areas of gray that lead to conflicts every year. FWP often plays referee.

The shoulder season proposal could help improve the conflicts between sportsmen and landowners where they exist and streamline things where they don’t. Allowing the flexibility in setting appropriate seasons across this six-month period is a vital management tool.

As the old saw goes, the devil is in the details, and that certainly applies here. However, if the agency doesn’t have the flexibility to expand hunting opportunities across a time range such as it has proposed, it is far too limited in finding a solution to the problems it faces.

Once the concept is approved by the commission, the actual seasons go through the same public process FWP uses for all its big game seasons. That means the public will have more opportunities to comment and be engaged in the process.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1PhW4F2

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Billings Gazette, Oct. 5, on improving mental health care services:

Last week, Montana’s sole state psychiatric hospital had 253 patients in facilities licensed for 216.

Then the governor’s office announced a plan to move up to 54 of the most seriously ill patients to a building a four miles down the highway at Galen. Those evaluated or treated at Galen will be adults who have been charged, convicted or committed through the criminal justice system. No civilly committed patients will go to Galen, state budget director Dan Villa told The Gazette. No developmentally disabled residents from the Montana Developmental Center will be housed at Galen, he said.

The state plans to lease a 12-year-old building from Community Counseling and Correction Services Inc. of Butte. That private company has been operating a secure facility for hard-to-place juveniles in the federal justice system. The juvenile program is closing because fewer youth are being institutionalized.

$4 million annual budget

The state will fund its expansion to Galen with the $4 million per year the Bullock administration had proposed for operating expanded facilities at Warm Springs and at the Montana State Mental Health Nursing Home in Lewistown. Those institutions cannot be expanded because the money for capital projects was in the infrastructure bill (Senate Bill 416) narrowly defeated in the final days of the 2015 Legislature.

But the operating money was appropriated. Villa said $4 million per year is expected to cover the facility lease, which will reflect costs of renovations to convert it from juvenile detention to adult psychiatric care. As previously reported by The Gazette, the state plans to hire up to 55 new employees and move 24 from Warm Springs to Galen. Recruiting for one psychiatrist and one advanced-practice nurse has already started, Villa said.

Villa expects the state could start moving patients into Galen in January. That certainly will relieve current overcrowding at the state hospital. But the addition of institutional beds is not the long-term answer to gaps in Montana’s mental health system.

If there were 80 forensic patients at Warm Springs last week (which Villa said is typical), there were 173 civilly committed patients - people who were confined although they had committed no crime. Many of these folks could have avoided hospitalization if appropriate mental health services had been affordable and accessible to them in their home communities. Many civilly committed patients could be discharged sooner, if community services were available. Sadly, some patients have been discharged from the state hospital without an adequate plan for community care. Those folks are likely to return to Warm Springs.

Over the past few weeks, the Bullock administration has announced several grant programs for community mental health services focused on jail diversion and crisis intervention. Some of the grant money will continue existing vital services, some will add services where none have been available previously or where population demand far exceeds capacity.

Invest in community care

But ongoing community services are struggling. In south central Montana, the 11-county Mental Health Center based in Billings ended its last fiscal year $500,000 in the red.

The center’s board has decided to close its cooperative group home and is evaluating costs of continuing to operate its home for people coming out of the Montana State Hospital, according to Bill Kennedy, who chairs both the Mental Health Center board and the Yellowstone County Commission. Kennedy said the Mental Health Center board will have to cut expenses this year - even after the Yellowstone County Commission voted to provide about $120,000 and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services agreed to pay $50,000 for services it initially wasn’t going to cover. Kennedy said cuts may mean that clients wait longer for services or that some programs are eliminated.

The Mental Health Center has asked the state to increase Medicaid reimbursement for psychiatrist services, saying the present payment doesn’t even cover the cost of the doctors’ salaries. Kennedy said Bullock promised to look into the request.

Jail diversion and crisis services are important, but they only work when there are ongoing community services available. As Kennedy said: “To divert, we have to have programs to divert to.”

To reduce the Montana State Hospital population in the long run, Montana must have community mental health care to meet the needs of urban and rural residents.

“We must do all we can to ensure Montanans are only committed there as a last resort,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a press release Tuesday announcing the Galen plan.

Montana has far to go to reach the governor’s goal.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/1Q70VqX

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